Riots that broke out in four large prisons in Ecuador on February 23 have left at least 79 detainees dead. The prisons, located in Guayaquil, Cuenca, and Latacunga, host 70 percent of Ecuador’s prison population nationwide. These violent events are an alarming reminder of the authorities’ failure to effectively control prisons and to protect the lives and security of people in them.
The government described the riots as “concerted actions of criminal organizations.” Prison authorities said the uprisings seem to be a consequence of a violent power struggle among criminal groups following the killing of a criminal organization’s leader in December.
Soldiers and special forces of the national police were sent to control the riots. None were reported injured or killed. Detainees were armed with knives, firearms, and chainsaws, according to media and prison authorities. Videos of the uprising show mutilated corpses.
Overcrowding, weak security, violence, inadequate health care, and other poor conditions are longstanding problems in prisons in Ecuador. The Covid-19 outbreak exacerbated the health risks, infecting detainees in overcrowded cellblocks.
Insufficient and poorly trained guards make it easier for criminal organizations to control prisons. According to prison authorities, the number of officers is low in relation to the country’s prison population.
Other riots and killings have taken place in Ecuador’s prisons in the last year. In response, President Lenín Moreno declared two states of emergency in all prisons, in May 2019 and August 2020.
Ecuadorian authorities have a duty of care for people in prisons, which are under their control, and an obligation to protect their right to life and security of person. According to the United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, authorities should ensure detainees are treated with dignity and create favorable conditions for reintegrating formerly incarcerated persons into society.
Before leaving office on May 24, President Moreno should ensure authorities promptly investigate this week’s violent attacks so those responsible are brought to justice. His successor should ensure these investigations move ahead swiftly and prioritize addressing the underlying problems that continue to lead to avoidable deaths in Ecuador’s prisons.